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Why multiculturalism can be hard
The idea is contested, but then so is the definition
‘Uncontrolled immigration, inadequate integration and a misguided dogma of multiculturalism have proven a toxic combination for Europe over the last few decades.
‘Multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate. It has failed. Because it has allowed people to come to our society and live parallel lives in it.’
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Not my words but those of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, at an event for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington this week.
Braverman’s sentiments are bound not just to infuriate the opposition but to alienate many of her colleagues, who are apparently privately unhappy about the speech.
Journalists and commentators have been more forthright in their views, many stating that Braverman’s comments are beyond the pale. Perhaps this is partly because people forget how normal apparently unspeakable opinions were until very recently, including on the Left. Even the recent past is a foreign country in the age of social media.
Back in 2010 Angela Merkel said that multiculturalism ‘had utterly failed’, stating that it was up to immigrants to integrate. In 2011, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said in a television interview: ‘We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him.’ That same year David Cameron criticised ‘state multiculturalism’ in a speech in Munich, calling for ‘a lot less … passive tolerance’ and ‘much more active, muscular liberalism’.
That did attract a huge deal of criticism at the time, many on Twitter suggesting it was wrong for Cameron to attack multiculturalism so soon after the English Defence League had protested in Luton. Sadiq Khan, then Labour MP for Tooting, accused the PM of ‘writing propaganda for the EDL’. Others pointed out how eerie it was that he made the speech in Munich because, you know, the NAZIS.
I would argue that much of the disagreement comes down to definition. While Eric Kaufmann describes multiculturalism as a system of managing relations, and Konstantin Kisin defines it as one of parallel existence, in contrast Hugo Rifkind interprets it as coexistence. Politically I’m closer to Kaufmann and Kisin, but Rifkind’s definition is just as valid — in fact all three are correct in their description. Multiculturalism can mean different things, hence the difficulty in debating its success.
When people say that an area is ‘multicultural’ they don’t mean there’s a well-established state apparatus for managing race relations — although there may well be — but that it is home to lots of people from different backgrounds. In 2015, for example, most Britons believed that multiculturalism had made the country worse, although post-Brexit there has been a considerable liberalisation of opinion. What most people mean by multiculturalism is hard to tell — but it is probably closer to Rifkind’s definition.
Braverman probably had in mind the system of managing relations, and encouraging expressions of identity — what might be called ‘hard multiculturalism’, a term I believe coined by Patrick West in a pamphlet many years ago (and before anyone needs to ask ‘any relation’, this is the British media — of course, he’s my brother). This form of multiculturalism, in which the state encourages a form of separation through the medium of community leaders, differs from ‘soft multiculturalism’, which merely means the existence of many different communities living in the same country.
What people mean when they say multiculturalism, or what they hear, is really open to interpretation. Many confuse hard and soft multiculturalism, although one follows from the other — whether inevitably we don’t know.
In his book From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik explained how the policy of state multiculturalism arose in the 1980s, with often very divisive results. Much of the impetus came from the 1981 Brixton riots, and an anxiety that minority communities felt a strong sense of alienation from Britain. Not long after those riots Salman Rushdie had appeared in a television documentary, The New Empire Within Britain, in which he talked about Britain’s immigrant communities as its ‘last colony’.
Rushdie had told the audience that: ‘It sometimes seems that the British authorities, no longer capable of exporting governments, have chosen instead to import a new Empire, a new community of subject peoples of whom they think, and with whom they can deal, in very much the same way as their predecessors thought of and dealt with “the fluttering folk and wild”, the “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child”, who made up, for Rudyard Kipling, the White Man’s burden.’
He observed that ‘for the citizens of the new imported Empire’ the police were a ‘colonising army, those regiments of occupation and control’.
After the riots Sir George Young was made Britain’s first ‘minister for race relations’, the aim being to encourage moderate minority leaders at the expense of the militants. And so local authorities began to follow the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee’s advice to ‘make as much direct contact as possible with ethnic minorities’.
Between 1981 and 1986 the Greater London Council, under Ken Livingstone, pioneered ‘a new strategy of making minority communities feel part of British society’. In Malik’s words: ‘It consulted with them, drew up equal opportunities policies, established race relations units, and dispensed millions of pounds in grants to minority groups. At the heart of the GLC’s anti-racist strategy was not simply the reallocation of resources but also a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different.’
Minorities would no longer be forced to adopt British identity, but should express their own, live by their own values, and pursue their own lifestyles.
Although Brixton provided the impetus, it was with Britain’s Muslim minority — mostly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent — that the policy would prove most damaging.
In Birmingham the city council created nine umbrella groups, based on ethnicity and religion, which were supposed to represent the needs of their community and help the council develop policy and allocate resources. This only hardened religious divisions, Malik quoting Arun Kundnani of the Institute of Race Relations, who said that the ‘new class of ‘ethnic representatives’ [that] entered the town halls from the mid-1980s onwards’ became ‘the surrogate voice for their own ethnically defined fiefdoms’.
Another Brummie, Joy Warmington of Birmingham Race Action partnership, told Malik: ‘People are forced into a very one-dimensional view of themselves by the way that equality policies work … If somebody in Handsworth or Lozells wants a community centre or a health centre it is often easier to get funding if they say “We want an Asian community centre” or “We want an African-Caribbean health centre.” They are forced to see themselves in terms of their ethnicity, their race, their culture and so on rather than in broader terms that might bring people together.’
Lozells would see race riots in 2005, a tragedy that might have been repeated in 2011 when three Asian men were accidently killed protecting their neighbourhoods from a mixed black/white group of men — perhaps averted by the compassion and religious faith of a heartbroken father.
The most pronounced effect of hard multiculturalism was to promote religious identity. Following the 1981 trial of the Bradford 12, radical Muslim-born secular leftists, Bradford Council copied the GLC by issuing equal opportunities statements and creating race relations units, throwing money at minority organisations — organisations that were mainly religious in nature.
Bradford council drew up a 12-point statement that year stating that every section of its community had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs’.
The city began funding the Bradford Council of Mosques in order to create a ‘new channel of communication’. Its Community Relations Council bred and funded a new generation of politicians who, unlike highly secular groups such as the Asian Youth Movement, were tied to the mosques.
As Malik said: ‘For what the pattern of mosque building in Bradford reveals is that it was not the piety of first-generation Muslims that led to the Islamisation of the town. It was, rather, the power, influence and money that accrued to religious leaders in the 1980s as a result of Bradford City Council’s multicultural policies. Multiculturalism helped paint Bradford Muslim green.’
Hard multiculturalism would expand in the New Labour era, on a more national scale, in particular with the Muslim Council of Britain, although Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard had previously floated the idea of a single representative body for Britain’s Muslim minority.
This perhaps reached its peak at the turn of the century. In October 2000, a report from the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain asserted that ‘Britishness’ was an alien concept for many citizens as it had ‘systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations’.
This form of multiculturalism created some perverse situations that outraged many liberals. In March 2004, during the giddy War on Terror years, the High Court overturned a court decision over Luton teenager Shabina Begum, who had wished to wear full Islamic dress at her school, and ruled that she had been denied the ‘right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs’.
Far more shocking, but not unusual, was the case of her namesake Tasleem Begum, who was killed in 1995 by her brother-in-law. He ran over the 20-year-old and reversed over the body, but argued that the great shame she had brought on the family had acted as a provocation. The plea was accepted, the judge handing down a six-year sentence for manslaughter rather than murder. ‘With his culture and religion, any sentence in custody is going to be that much harsher,’ his defence had argued.
This was certainly not the only case where ‘shame’ was used as a defence, and by the mid-2000s there may have been as many as 15 honour killings a year in Britain, while victims of domestic violence often complained that the police told them such abuse is normal to their culture. By this stage there were also an alarming number of polls showing Muslim public opinion to be at odds with the British population on social issues — especially with regards to acceptance of homosexuality.
In perhaps the most bizarre example of multiculturalism gone mad, the London Borough of Brent even debated the motion that female genital mutilation was a ‘right specifically for African families who want to carry on their tradition whilst living in this country’.
State multiculturalism of this form became extremely unpopular among British liberals, commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown warning that multiculturalism ‘risks building barriers between the different tribes that make up Britain today, rather than helping to create a new shared sense of Britishness’.
Attitudes have changed a great deal since, and huge efforts have been made to reverse (or adapt) multiculturalism through the idea of ‘British values’, which happen to be overwhelming progressive viewpoints with the happy secondary effect of undermining conservatism and Christianity. This is closer to the French system of laïcité, which has not worked especially well in France (although it has particular historical disadvantages).
Yet perhaps it has proved successful, since in the past five years Islamist terrorism has died down a great deal, the reasons for which are not entirely clear. The suppression of ISIS is certainly one factor, but there is also some sense of disengagement with religion among young Muslims — which perhaps suggests that ‘British values’ are working, or maybe modernity is just having its effect on everyone.
(One curious explanation I’ve heard is that the young men once drawn into hatred of the West are now being lured by Andrew Tate-style misogyny instead; if Twitter is representative of social trends, and let’s hope it’s not, that is a growing problem among young men in general.)
Yet much of the confusion about the definition of multiculturalism stems from the fact that one tends to inevitably follow the other, France being something of an outlier in this sense.
Hard multiculturalism is an old and tested method for handling diversity; indeed it is the norm in most empires. As Krishan Kumar wrote in Visions of Empire, the Ottoman Turks practised a policy of accommodation (istimalet) and rule by community representatives, the millet system, that preempted modern multiculturalism.
Millets were religious rather than ethnic. The Greek millet, millet-I Rum, included not just Greeks but Bulgarians, Serbians, Albanians, Romanians, and even Orthodox Christian Arabs — but the Greeks had a special position. In fact the Greek Orthodox Church had more authority under the Ottomans than under the Byzantines, and the community as a whole was wealthy.
It is therefore not surprising that, Kumar argues, when Greek independence came in the 1820s, many Greeks did not want a new state in which they would be much poorer and lose the status they enjoyed. In total, out of 215 grand viziers in the empire, two-thirds were of Christian origin — testimony to the success of Ottoman multiculturalism.
Just as modern policymakers aim to create a new British identity that encompasses all backgrounds, the Ottoman Empire even saw a popular form of ‘Islamo-Christian syncretism’ under religious leader Sheikh Bedreddin and his disciple BörklüceMustafa, preaching a union of Christianity and Islam — though the authorities crushed it, as empires tend to do with excitable religious movements.
Kumar quotes Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis who recalled that: ‘For nearly half a millennium the Ottomans ruled an empire as diverse as any in history. Remarkably, this polyethnic and multi-religious society worked. Muslims, and Jews worshipped and studied side by side, enriching their distinct cultures.’
The system worked — until it didn’t. Curiously, as ethnic identity grew in the late nineteenth century, heralding the violent collapse of the Empire, the majority developed a new consciousness of themselves as a people; yet as Kumar points out, none of the founding members of the Young Turks movement were actually ‘ethnic’ Turks, the leadership comprising an Albanian, a Circassian and two Kurds. Critics of Braverman who point to her own immigrant background forget the attachment that many ethnic outsiders feel towards their homeland.
Ottoman multiculturalism was not groundbreaking — the Persians had employed similar forms of self-government — and neither was it cooked up by policy innovators, as with the British form. It evolved because it worked, and because it was naturally the easiest way to govern a multicultural society.
That, in one sense, is how soft multiculturalism became hard: it is the path of least resistance, but it also creates incentives for people to keep the system running, even more so in a democracy where unelected community leaders can deliver votes. As VS Naipaul said of multiculturalism, ‘It’s become a kind of racket... Jobs for the boys.’
But that’s how empires work, and what is diversity but a new form of empire?
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